WOID XVIII-33. Museumwatch. It’s the overvaluation, stupid.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008 9:48 am

There’s an old, legendary narrative: a smuggler’s busted at the Mexican border. In the back of his truck US agents find a hoard of magnificent pre-Columbian art ceramics. The hoarder shrugs: You can’t charge me with smuggling antiquities, señores: they’re fakes. The agents bring in their best experts, who all agree these are priceless antiquities. The smuggler shrugs again, picks up a piece of pottery and smashes it against the floor: there’s a brand-new peso baked inside.

Like the customs officials in the story, the media reporting on the recent busts in the Los Angeles museum world seem to have their culprits all right, but for all the wrong reasons. The media critics seem to believe that the January 24th raids on a pack of Los Angeles museums were all about looted antiquities. Lee (“Culturegrrl”) Rosenbaum, who’s never seen a scam she wasn’t blind to, huffily writes, "The dramatic raid was out of proportion to what it was attempting to achieve."

Which might make sense if the Feds were trying to achieve what she’d like to think they were trying to achieve, that is, to secure curatorial records about objects, and perhaps the objects themselves, on the assumption the objects were illegally imported. Unless of course the Feds were looking for records of a less official nature, like a couple of written wink-winks as to the real value of various donated objects.

The scam wasn’t just importing stuff illegally: it was turning over stuff to museums at inflated valuations, and – here’s the point: it’s about the very real possibility the museums knew their own valuations were inflated, and inflated their valuations for gain. The donors, obviously, got huge tax breaks; the question is, what did the museums involved get in return, because a lot of the art involved appears to have been penny-ante stuff, small objects looted here (from Native American sites) and there (Ban Chiang, Thailand, mostly). Some of the museums even took in stuff that wasn’t part of their collecting strategies, on which they had no particular expertise, for which they really had no use, but then museums have been taking in stuff for a long, long time for no other reason than this: that the taking in itself established a value for stuff that had none, or little.

If I were the undercover agent involved in collecting evidence (a highly credentialed and experienced woman according to the warrants), and I had a chance to prove a museum had overvalued donations with malice aforethought I wouldn’t simply turn up with sirens wailing, I’d have a goddam band. I mean, when Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gives, as a full explanation for acquiring a 45 million Madonna, “We just have to have this,” don’t you feel like bringing him down to the precinct house for a friendly chat?

This is your worst nightmare, culturefolks. The small upstart museums are looking more and more like those companies charged with rating bonds called monoline insurers, who never met a bond they didn’t rate triple-A, which the monolines can do because they themselves take on insurance on the bonds performing as the monolines promise to do. It's like museums and critics who think they've got some kind of insurance against whatever they decide is Important. Of course, if it turn out the insurer’s no better than the insured we’re all in trouble.

And of course, there are those who think art is valued according to some kind of objective standard, and who can blame them, because if it turned out all merchandise in the whole wide world was not valued according to a rational standard the system would collapse, but that’s another story – that’s the story museums and art critics are paid to keep hush-hush.

What’s the difference between organic intellectuals and organic vegetables?

Organic vegetables can think for themselves.